The Wisconsin Supreme Court justices agreed on Tuesday on the outcome of a convicted murderer’s appeal to the high court, but they disagreed on the way their decision was reached.
At heart of the dispute was a drug-related case involving Dennis Brantner, who is serving a 10-year prison sentence for strangling an 18-year-old woman in Fond du Lac County in 1990. He was first charged with Berit Beck’s murder 25 years after her death, when authorities re-examining the cold case matched a fingerprint found in her van to Brantner.
In 2014, Fond du Lac authorities arrested Brantner in Kenosha County in connection to the Beck case and took him to the Fond du Lac County Jail for booking. During those proceedings, a sheriff’s deputy found narcotics and prescription drugs in Brantner’s boot. Brantner was charged and sentenced for possessing the drugs, among other crimes.
Brantner filed a post-conviction motion in the drug case, arguing that he shouldn’t have been tried in Fond du Lac County because the possession happened in Kenosha County before his arrest. He said two of the charges also violated double-jeopardy rules. The circuit court denied his motion, and the Court of Appeals summarily affirmed.
The Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the case in 2019. The justices agreed the Fond du Lac venue was proper because Brantner still had the drugs on him but reversed the appellate court’s decision on the multiplicity challenge.
While unified on the outcome of the case, the justices disagreed on the way they reached their decision in the possession issue. Justice Dan Kelly filed the majority opinion, joined by Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Bradley and Rebecca Dallet. Chief Justice Pat Roggensack and Justice Annette Ziegler filed a concurring opinion about possession because they thought the majority opinion was confusing.
“The majority opinion takes a simple issue, possession, and makes it complicated,” Roggensack wrote. “The majority opinion also has the potential to confuse the meaning of possession, which is employed throughout Wisconsin’s criminal code.”
Kelly wrote possessing something requires both knowledge and control.
“(P)ossession occurs when the object is in an area over which the defendant has control, and he intends to exercise that control,” Kelly wrote.
He said a person could control an object through the exercise of authority, direction or command — a type of control he referred to as “indirect power.”
“The fact that he chose to remain silent does not mean he did not have indirect power over the pills, it just means he decided not to exercise it,” Kelly wrote.
Roggensack, meanwhile, said the definition of possession in the instructions given at trial is “the defendant knowingly had actual physical control of the item.”
“The uncontested facts presented at trial were sufficient evidence for a jury to find that Brantner ‘knowingly had actual physical control’ of the pills until he gave his boot to the officer at the Fond du Lac County Jail,” Roggensack wrote.
The case now goes back to the circuit court for sentencing. Justice Brian Hagedorn did not participate. Follow @WLJReporter